At the end of Andrew Niccol's Lord of War, the story of an affable American who sells weapons to anyone who wants them, Niccol's immutable protagonist tells the G-man who's been dogging him for almost 20 years that "the President of the United States" is the real mastermind behind his sanguinary profession. Soon after that the movie ends with the revelation that it was "based on actual events," and that the world's five biggest arms dealers are also the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
This may all be true, or it may be a matter of opinion. In any case, it would make a far more interesting movie than the right-thinking, one-note Lord of War. To paraphrase: A movie about one person is a tragedy, a movie about millions is a statistic. In The Truman Show and Gattaca, Niccol created eerily familiar alternative realities and used them to explore human longing. The big political landscape in Lord of War isn't his medium, so all we end up with is the message.
His movie ceased to interest me after 10 minutes, the moment at which I literally predicted a specific climactic turn of events. I spent the rest of its nearly two hours enjoying the occasional rhetorical pearl (spoken, of course, by swine), and looking for signs of the erstwhile Niccol.
To add another layer of the obvious to his movie -- whose central idea is, "War and weapons are bad" -- his arms dealer, Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), emigrated from the Ukraine to Brighton Beach as a child, so his achievement is a grand immigrant success story. The Orlov family is witty at first because they got out of the Soviet Union by claiming to be Jewish: Papa Orlov irritates his wife by refusing shellfish and by going to synagogue more religiously than Brooklyn's real Jews. ("I like the hat," he tells her, fondling his black derby.)
Niccol keeps up his satirical half-smirk for a while. (Yuri doesn't sell to Osama, but only because he bounces checks.) Then his movie morphs into an American tragedy, and when it's too late, it morphs back again, sort of.
We see the human toll of arms dealing in patches, especially in Africa and specifically in Liberia, where "freedom fighters" and a fictionalized military leader (played by Eamonn Walker, and based on the late Liberian despot Samuel K. Doe) slaughter at will. But Niccol never truly embraces his black humor, as Kubrick does in Dr. Strangelove. Part of this may be because he hired such listless actors -- Ethan Hawke, Jared Leto, Bridget Moynahan -- who can't do comedy. His movie is one-third of Three Kings, or Wag the Dog without a tail.
Here and there Niccol gets off a good line and stages a few virtuoso sequences. His opening credits follow a bullet from its manufacturing plant in Odessa to its final destination: the gun of an African assassin, and the head of an African boy. "I don't want to be remembered at all," Yuri tells his disappointed father. "If I'm being remembered, I'm dead." And a rival arms dealer (Ian Holm) tells Yuri, "Bullets change governments surer than votes."
But then there's the embarrassingly obvious -- for example, at the 1983 Berlin Arms Fair, where two blond beauties in camouflage short-shorts pose with AK-47s, whose profitable bullets go "cha-ching" rather than "bang-bang," as Wagner plays over the loudspeakers. If that sort of thing still amuses you, then Lord of War is all yours.